What innovation means at JPL


NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by Caltech and based in Pasadena, is well known for being on the cutting edge of space exploration. So what keeps JPL in this pole position? A key part of the answer is innovation: both in what we do and in how we do it. In conceiving the missions we will attempt in the next decade, we make a deliberate effort to ‘swing for the fences’, but in doing so there is a lot of careful preparation and forethought. We may swing for the fences, but we carefully check our bat is properly oiled and finely balanced, we use a brand new, unblemished baseball, and make sure that the fences are freshly painted too.

In JPL’s Innovation Foundry, we help JPL’s creative workforce and our collaborators conceive of and mature ideas for new space missions. Different tools and methods are employed depending on the maturity of the concept. The end goal is to fly the mission, so we assist teams in making compelling arguments as to why their particular mission should go forward at this moment in time. This process has resulted in many exciting JPL missions such as the Asteroid Retrieval Mission and our next mission to Mars – Insight. Further illustrative examples will be provided during the presentation.

Dr. Anthony Freeman is the manager of the Innovation Foundry – JPL’s incubator for new ideas – at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Formerly, he was the program manager of the Earth System Science Formulation office, which resulted in several new projects at JPL. Dr. Freeman received the B.Sc. (Hons.) degree in Mathematics and a Ph. D. in Astrophysics, both from the University of Manchester (formerly UMIST).

Dr. Freeman joined JPL in 1987 as a member of technical staff in the Radar Science and Engineering section and was responsible for the end-to-end calibration of the SIR-C imaging radar mission, and formulation of the LightSAR instrument. He subsequently managed the Mission and Systems Architecture section at JPL. His technical interests include the architecture of innovative space missions, especially novel radar observing systems and techniques.

He taught the class on ‘Remote Sensing Systems from Space’ at USC from 2003 to 2012 and now teaches Aerospace Engineering (with a focus on nanosats), Systems Engineering and Program Management at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

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